Gabriel Nathan

@gabriel-nathan | contributor
Gabriel Nathan is an author, editor, actor, and a mental health and suicide awareness advocate. He is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online publication that features stories of mental health, empowerment, and change. Gabe raises mental health awareness, generates conversations around suicide prevention, and spreads a message of hope with his 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, Herbie the Love Bug replica that bears the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on its rear window. Gabe and Herbie have a robust presence on Instagram. He created a feature-length documentary film called “A Beautiful Day Tomorrow: Taking Suicide Awareness on the Road” which documents his 11-day East Coast road trip in Herbie, talking to suicide loss and attempt survivors, and members of the general public he met along his way about suicide and its prevention. You may view the film, and learn more about Gabe and Herbie in the link below
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Gabriel Nathan

The Importance of Leaning Into Conversations About Mental Health

That. Sinking. Feeling. When. You’re driving a 57-year-old car in a state that isn’t your own; you’ve put over 900 miles between you and home and the engine starts backfiring and the little car starts bucking. You strain to hear, as if your brain could somehow interpret the messages ensconced within those small tailpipe explosions. Chemistry. Spark and fire. Speed. Energy. The last embers of hope. I pushed that little car as far as it could go that day, to the very mud-soaked driveway that led to the little repair shop in Colchester, Vermont. I stopped the car to take a picture of the sign at the foot of the driveway, and the engine stalled. My heart sank. “Are you kidding me?” I asked the steering wheel. I turned the key and it sputtered its reply. There would be no more combustion today. No more spark. The only energy expended from this point forward would be that of my body, braced against the rear of that old bug, as I pushed it, several hundred feet, one trembling hand on the wheel to keep it out of the sloppiest puddles, to the shop’s garage bay. “Woof! That was a deep one!” I can be heard exclaiming on one of the video cameras mounted on the exterior of the car as my left leg got completely soaked with the muddy Vermont clay. “Oh, no!” Jay, the bearded mechanic exclaimed as he saw my Herbie the Love Bug replica ambling, injured, toward him, its owner panting breathlessly alongside of him. Oh, no. I took my bug from 1963 on an 11 day, 1,100 mile road-trip in May of 2018 to do something that we can no longer really do anymore, thanks to COVID-19: to look people in the eye—suicide loss and attempt survivors—to talk to people I knew, and people I didn’t, about suicide. To raise awareness. To let people know that not only is it OK to talk, it is essential to talk. My old theatre professor, my father, my friend in Manhattan, in Syracuse, on the Vermont/Canada border. Students at Cornell. A first responder therapist. A veteran at a gas station. Waitresses at diners. People in parking lots. To make a documentary film. Why? Because, in spite of marked progress, suicide is still spoken in whispers, if at all. It is still “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” in obituaries. It is still the cloud of shame that hangs over families for generations. It was something that touched my own family that we didn’t talk about for fifteen years; until the day before I set off on my trip. I knew I had to start by talking to my father about his sister. I knew we had to hug. There was a lot of hugging. On that trip. In my film. We can’t hug anymore. For… now. Whenever I put my hands on that car—slide my fingers through the door handle, or give him a pat on the roof—I feel his steel and I think of skin, or clothes. The way people smell when you bring them in close for comfort and warmth and love. That electricity of connection. Spark and fire. My Herbie the Love Bug replica has had the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on its rear window for nearly three years. Together, we have logged thousands and thousands of miles, and we have devoted ourselves and our unique love for each other to help people know and understand that there is both hope and help, that suicide is preventable. I use this gentle, sweet little car as a way to lead and lean into conversations around mental health and suicide. It happens at gas stations and grocery stores, even—briefly— at red lights. My father’s sister killed herself in Israel in 2004. My friend’s mother killed herself in 2001. It just goes on and on and on; and it will continue to do so. Maybe now more than ever. But we don’t know for sure. I sit here on Instagram and scroll through mindlessly repeated memes talking about how “the suicide rate has gone up 200 percent; can I get someone to repost?” Two hundred percent from… what? Where did that statistic come from? Where is the citation? Stats and numbers are so abstract—and the truth can be eclipsed by family members who are ashamed, and suicides can get mis-classified. Only the survivors’ stories are true. Only hope is true. And so that is what I hold onto. I will never forget riding up to a hillside on the Vermont/Canada border sitting next to my friend Hayes Johnson, whose father, Daniel, took his life in 2010. Hayes was very open about not only his father’s suicide and the profound impact it had on his and his mother’s life, but on his father’s behavior in the weeks and days leading up to his suicide. “All of a sudden,” Hayes recalled as the lush greenery whizzed past the car’s windows, “he started being real helpful around the house. ‘Oh, I’ll do the dishes for you, Becky—you keep reading.’ Things that were so out of character for him, which we then learned is something that somebody who’s preparing to take their life can do cuz in their mind it’s like, ‘Well, I wanna leave a nice image behind.’” Hayes went on to express regret that he and his mother were not educated about suicidal behavior, or risk factors, or even uncharacteristic behavioral warning signs like the sudden mood improvement/helpfulness exhibited by his father as a precursor to the event. Hayes said, “if my mother and I had known we could have maybe, in those moments, in that time, done something preventative.” This is why talking to these incredibly brave and vulnerable human beings was so important—to spread education and awareness, so other children don’t have to go through what Hayes went through, so other wives don’t have to become widows in the way that his mother did, so that we can just talk more openly with one another when we need or want to, about hard things. So much has changed since my bug and I rolled out together to “drive out suicide” and, yet, much has stayed the same. Our commitment to spreading awareness has not wavered—there is even a 20 foot tall mural in West Philly devoted to our efforts for suicide prevention, encouraging passersby to “KEEP GOING” in the face of… everything. Sometimes we have to get out of the car and get our feet – and legs – wet as we push. But no matter how, no matter what: We. Keep. Going. Please know you are not alone. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Please see a list of resources below. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-626-HELP (4357) Text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis support in the U.S.

Gabriel Nathan

How Herbie the Love Bug Helps Me Manage My Mental Health

If you work in the mental health field for long enough, eventually you’ll hear the word “mindfulness” so often that, one day, you’ll be sitting in a treatment team meeting or at a continuing education conference somewhere and someone will say it and you’ll just start vomiting uncontrollably and you’ll never stop. But at least you’ll be doing so mindfully. Mental health is no different than any other field — all professions latch onto abbreviations, tropes or fads — we’re all very susceptible to buzz-words and trends. Mental Health First Aid is thing now. “Trauma-informed care” is another one. Everything has to be “trauma-informed.” It’s not enough to do yoga with hospitalized psychiatric patients — it has to be “trauma-informed yoga.” The art on the walls has to be “trauma-sensitive.” So does the paint on those walls. And the plants in the corner. If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. For five years, I worked in an inpatient psychiatric hospital and that, I suppose, will do a number on you if you’re not careful — and even if you are. When started, I was wide-eyed, innocent and nice. A bright-eyed, warm-hearted, angelic colleague of mine, early on in my inpatient adventure, said to me in a quiet moment in the nurses’ station, “I’m so glad that you work here. You’re very good for this place.” I was touched by that comment, because I felt the same way about her. By the time I left, though, this woman no longer worked there, and I’m not sure she would have said the same thing to me if she’d known me, five years in and about to make my own exit. In the words of another colleague, I had gone from “green, to brown, to black. And that’s OK,” he assured me, “you have to do that if you want to survive here.” But I didn’t want to survive there; I wanted to get the hell out. Just like the patients. I was burnt out, and I was angry that I was burnt out, which didn’t help. I was angry at myself because I had let things — like the same patients getting re-admitted constantly, getting assaulted, being around depressed colleagues, responding to frightening emergencies — get to me, when there were folks who had endured far worse and were still clocking in and out after 25 or 30 years. I allowed my inner-monologue to joyfully and constantly berate me. You loser. You phony. You disgraceful coward. That was in 2015. I foundered around in the darkness of depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and, probably, PTSD from the things I had seen and done and experienced at the psych hospital. I took a job at a theater company in downtown Philly and resigned after three weeks. I handed my dazed supervisor the key to the theater door on the sidewalk and apologized profusely. She hugged me. I took another job, and stayed for a year. I started to feel better, more confident. Then Trump got elected, and my wife’s mental health took a nosedive, too, along with a good portion of the country’s. I was mindful of what was going on around me and in my head and in my house. Despair and fear had settled in and had gotten comfortable on the couch next to the basset hound once again. I had to do something. So I did what any stable, former mental health professional, father-of-two in his mid-30s would do in that particular situation: I convinced my wife that it was the right time to buy a white, 1963 Volkswagen Beetle and turn it into Herbie: the Love Bug. Surprisingly, my wife, who is typically fiscally conservative and hyper-rational, did not require any inordinate amount of cajoling or convincing to allow this momentous purchase to take place. She, too, was mindful of her emotional state and was ready to acknowledge it was time for some joy to be injected into not only our lives, but the lives of random people in the neighborhood out walking their dogs or taking their children to school. It was time for their muddled and negative internal monologues to be interrupted by the roaring, rhythmic sounds of a 1600cc air-cooled engine approaching, time to turn their heads and see a black “53” in a white circle, some red, white and blue stripes, and two innocent, round headlights coming down the street. Time to take a spin down Memory Lane, in Herbie. There are lots of different kinds of smiles — there is a wry smile when your brain processes the punch-line of an off-color joke. There is a pure, Jesus-ray smile when you hear your baby laugh for the first time. There is a post-coital smile and a post-midterms smile. There is also Herbie Smile, and it’s unmistakable and, for me, it has a narcotic effect. The more of them I see, the more I want. When it’s beautiful out, I’ll take an hour and drive him up and down the main drag of this town or that town. If people give me a Herbie Smile, they get two quick toots of his endearing little horn; that’s the transaction, though it’s far from transactional. It’s more transcendent. Herbie is good for people, and he is good for me. For my mental health. You can’t hide from people when you’re noodling around in The Love Bug, and why would you want to anyway? When I’m not driving Herbie, the part of me that wants desperately to be invisible dominates. My head is kept down. I avoid meeting people’s eyes. I stumble through routine social interactions and small-talk while sweat trickles down the center of my back. When I get behind that ivory-colored steering wheel and settle into that squishy, vinyl-covered driver’s seat, though, another part of me wins out. I don’t know if it’s a child part of me, or an exhibitionist part of me, an attention-seeking or impish part of me but, whatever it is, I can feel it in my chest and in my hands as I let down the parking brake, push down on the clutch and gently move the gearshift lever up into First. Prepare for take-off. “OK, Herb,” I say, giving the steering wheel a pat, “let’s go to work.” The job of making merry. We take it very seriously. Driving a 54-year-old movie star on wheels is a singular experience for many reasons, and there is so much that we miss, puttering around in our Subarus and Toyotas, and I try to be mindful of every single thought that passes through my mind when I’m in Herbie. I try to soak in and imprint ever Herbie Smile I see, every thumbs-up — the guy who bowed down on the sidewalk as he was about to get into his Mazda and his world just stopped when he saw us coming. Me and my little boy. Around a month ago, a police officer from a neighboring town stopped Herbie and I as we were parking at a supermarket. I thought I had done something wrong, but he just wanted to talk about the car, about how happy it made him. We ended up talking in that parking lot for an hour, while his Chipotle lunch went cold and ignored on the passenger seat of his patrol car. We talked about parenting, about politics, about the perceptions of policing in America — about mental health, about PTSD and trauma. He told me that he’d shot and killed someone last year who was trying to die by suicide-by-cop. He’d exited his patrol car, the guy was coming at him with a knife and he killed him — the whole thing took 15 seconds. Herbie and I listened as this officer talked — he talked and talked. He needed to talk. As he talked, I remembered some of the things I had tried to forget about the psych hospital. Patients trying to kill themselves on the unit. Patients attacking my friends — people I loved. Staff members screaming at each other over scandals created by patients. Tackles, restraints, injections, the floor — rolling around on the floor, trying to subdue, dodging blows or bites. Everybody’s seen things and done things and said things in their lives that have caused pain. I’m mindful of that. And I’m mindful, too, of how, sometimes, in a small way, a small, round Volkswagen with a Hollywood pedigree can help you forget, can help you heal, can help you begin again. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . All rights reserved. A version of this article originally appeared on PsychCentral.com as “Mindful Motoring: How Herbie the Love Bug is Saving My Life.” Reprinted here with permission.